Monday, March 25, 2013

What the Kids Say ...

THE most important factor in book choice for MG readers:
the cover synopsis

A few weeks ago, Matt McNish posted about first lines. And he got me wondering: How important are first lines to MG readers?

Since I have a captive audience of MG readers every day, I decided to find out. I divided my class into discussion groups, gave them a stack of unfamiliar books, and asked what factors were most important in deciding whether or not to read any of them.

I specifically asked them to consider the first sentence, first paragraph, and first page. In spite of this, every group focused on the back cover or dust jacket. They had to be reminded to open the book and look inside before answering – even though that was part of their directions – because the cover blurb was the deciding factor for them.

A few students were more reflective. “You should really look inside,” Alexa said. “I wasn’t very interested in this one, from the back cover, but the first page is really interesting. I might read this.”

The Kiss of Death: no synopsis, only review blurbs.
Or worse -- nothing at all!
But in each group, the decision to start reading was almost always based on the blurb.  Not so much the front cover, which surprised me. “Covers don’t always show what the book’s about,” Grace said. “But the back of the book tells you the problem in the story, which is what I want to know.”

I asked how important the first page was in determining whether the students continued reading. If they weren’t hooked by the first page, did they keep going?  Some did not.

“I want some action on the first page,” Zoe admitted.

“I’ll give it till page two,” Grace said with a laugh. “And then I’m done.”

“If I don’t like the first chapter, I’ll skip to the next one,” Mike said.

Grace challenged him on that. “You mean, go back and read it later?”

“Nope,” said Mike with a grin. “Just skip it. I know I’m not supposed to.” He shrugged unapologetically.

But most students said they would not quit if the first page didn’t hook them; they’d keep reading further – a chapter or two at least. “Unless there are too many words I don’t know on the first page,” Chris clarified. “Then the book might be too hard for me.”

Josh added, “I always look to make sure there aren’t too many strange names and places and words in the beginning.”  I pointed out that Josh reads almost exclusively science fiction and fantasy. Aren’t they full of strange names and places and words? “Yeah, but too many in the beginning is just confusing,” Josh said. “I want to learn them a little at a time.”

Owen asked his group if they would read a book because of the author or because it won an award. The answer was yes for an author they liked – Andrew Clements and Gordon Korman were mentioned – but an award sticker was not as respected. “They give awards because the book is ‘heartwarming,’” said Zoe, using air quotes to make her point. “And then it’ll have no action in it.”

So – the message for writers? Make sure your opening pages are engaging and don’t dump too many strange things in the beginning. But you absolutely need a cover synopsis that’s a grabber. Even though the author doesn’t usually write that, (unless he or she is self-publishing), make sure the publisher is putting as much effort into that summary as they do on the front cover design.

Don’t worry if you don’t have an award sticker. Kids don’t care. And if you happen to be Andrew Clements or Gordon Korman, you’re golden.

44 comments:

  1. I find this to be true with my kids. They always read the blurb and then start reading at home. Whether they finish or not is another story. But what I consider an attractive cover...they don't care.

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    1. I, too, was surprised the cover wasn't the biggest draw. I suppose they might pick the book off the shelf because of the cover, but they want to read the back.

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  2. Hah! This is fascinating. Of course, I know a little about this stuff, being a dad, but it's great to hear about a larger, more scientific sample.

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    1. I don't know how "scientific" it was! But my observation was that -- in most cases -- they weren't very interested in the first lines as a basis for decision making.

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    2. I've found the same in talking to my kids. And I only meant that a classroom of presumably 10-25 kids is a better sample than my two daughters. :)

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  3. This is so interesting. At the high school level, my daughter's teacher told them to give a book until page 50 and then stop if you didn't like it. I've been following that policy too now that I have so much to read. I think your students show how important it is to hook the reader quickly with your story.

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    1. Page 50 is pretty generous! I want to like a book way before page 50! :D

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  4. Fascinating. I'm forwarding this link to so many people. Thanks for conducting the experiment!

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    1. You are welcome, and thanks for forwarding!

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  5. Interesting! I mostly agree with these smart kiddos. The title is what grabs my attention first, but ultimately it's the back over summary that entices me to buy the book or not. I don't care if a first sentence is awesome or not (that's subjective anyway). When I was younger I always finished a book that I started even if I didn't like it. Now I give it at least a 100 pages. There are too many wonderful books out there and life's far too short to waste your time on a book you're not 100% enjoying! One hundred pages is more than long enough to wait for a story to get going; for kids' books, which are usually shorter, I'd say it better get going within the first 25 pages.

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    1. They ARE smart! And they know what they like and what they want out of a book.

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  6. Very interesting to see what attracts the reader. I find it's true with my child as well. At the book fair when the book blurbs were read you could see their interest and later it was the ones that got purchased.

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    1. As an author, I know I've sometimes obsessed over what might be on the front cover of my books. Apparently I should've been obsessing over the cover blurb instead. And based on this, I never want to see "review snippets" on my back cover instead of a synopsis.

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    2. Any hope for those of us who frankly stress over writing blurbs more than the actual books?

      Kids may not care about awards, but it does get us taken more seriously by the agents and/or editors we want to have, and let's face it, in the case of anything below YA (Which I'm not good at writing, despite my teen years not being Forever and a Day ago), we have to sell adults on our books before we get to kids, and for those of us who aren't (Rich enough) to self-publish, this is kind of a big deal.

      At least, that's been my experience so far. Any hope for us?

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  7. Wow! After all those first line posts I did. Please thank your kids for me. This is great advice. I tweeted and facebooked it.

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    1. LOL! It's still pretty important to the agents if you're querying! Thanks for passing the link along!

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  8. I had a similar discussion with my students recently and found almost the same thing. Those blurbs are so important to them!

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    1. This certainly true for me as a reader, then and now, but just because the READER in me gets this, doesn't mean it's a cinch for the WRITER in me to actually do it!

      Is it possible for the READER and WRITER parts of you just NOT connect 1-to-1 all the time? It's like a told a writer friend recently, we can enjoy reading what we can't write well ourselves.

      Can there not the same discrepancy between what we appreciate as READERS ourselves (Kid Past and Adult Present) that we just STRUGGLE to write ourselves? I'd like to think so, if only to know I'm not a hypocrite.

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    2. I am pretty sure we all struggle with that Reader/Writer discrepancy in ourselves. Although, I find that I expect an awful lot of the books I read. I saw a tense slip in a Percy Jackson book and thought, "Your editor let you get away with that?!" LOL

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  9. Interesting points. I see the same with my 8th graders. The back cover gets them, and they give it a chapter or two as well. Great post.

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    1. Thanks, Mike!
      I was pretty sure the first lines weren't as "all important" as we sometimes think they are.

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  10. Thanks, Dianne! I bet most people judge a book by its cover...or flap. I think part of why we all love writing for kids is that they demand good AND fun writing. Adults will buy and read a book because of that award sticker. Kids don't care. Friends and just their own choices move them. As we all know, with kids, book tours are so important, more than with adults, I think.

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    1. Eden, as much as I'd like to win an award, I think I'm a little like Zoe. They don't impress me much. There are several Newbery winners I didn't like at all.

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  11. “But the back of the book tells you the problem in the story, which is what I want to know.”

    Well said, Grace.

    (Nice to know not to stress out too much about cover, review blurbs, and first sentence.)

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    1. Yes, I thought Grace put it very succinctly!

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    2. Unfortunately, kids can't publish us, so this pressure won't go away.

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  12. Thanks for this fascinating post. Great information for the writers in your audience.

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    1. Thanks, Rosi. I'm glad it was useful!

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  13. Thanks for this post. I will pay closer attention to the blurbs. I always knew they were important, just didn't know how much.

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    1. Yes, and I think I will be more inclined to speak up in the future when the publisher shows me what they've come up with.

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  14. Great post! It's wonderful to hear feedback from actual kid readers.

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    1. The kid readers were excited to be included in this post. I shared it with them, and a couple of them wanted the URL so they could show their parents!

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  15. That's how I was as a young reader!

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    1. Caroline, I still make my decision based on the blurb. No matter how obsessed I am about my first line as an author, as a reader, it rarely influences my decision!

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  16. I remember choosing books simply from the scholastic flier that we got in class. 2 maybe 3 sentences... and yes, the conflict was what I was looking for. Great post, thanks for sharing!

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    1. Oh, yes! They still do that, too! The Scholastic flier is one place that a flashy cover image really works, too.

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  17. I can totally remember reading the back covers of books in the book stores... and then I never really expected anything great to happen on the first page and would have never considered stopping reading something after a first line. You have to give it time after all... I think my cut-off was a few chapters in.

    Thanks for posting this. It was very interesting, especially considering how much everyone stresses, myself included, over first lines! ACK!!

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    1. Lara, I think we have all been brainwashed into obsessing over those first lines. They ought to be good, of course, and it's great to have a hook. But I don't think kids stop reading if the first line is: "It was a dark and stormy night." :P

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  18. Great post, Diane! Now you've got me curious, too. I'll have to check with my resident experts (10 and 13) to see what influences them the most. I know they'll read anything a friend tells them is good but I'm not sure when they're just picking a book up cold. Lot's to think about here.

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    1. Sherrie, I always knew they looked at the back cover. I didn't know the front cover meant so little to them. And I guess I got brainwashed into the "first lines" thing when I started querying. But I was pretty sure, just from watching the kids, that it wasn't as important to them as to the agents!

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  19. Well done, and out of the mouths of babes comes the real truth. We authors need to hone our back cover blurbs, or at least demand to have our say.

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    1. I've always been asked for my opinion, but usually I bow to the publisher's expertise. However, reading Helaine's comment below, I realize that if I have an objection/suggestion/preference, I should make it known!

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  20. Love it! I started my writing career as a copywriter for publishing houses, and wrote more back jacket blurbs than I can count. I now write the INSIDES of books for children, everything from picture books to nonfic to YA. My experience as a copywriter has informed EVERYTHING I write. It has to be punchy. It has to have a hook. Every word needs to "sizzle." I almost always write blurb copy for each book I am writing before I type "chapter 1" - even if it's only in my head. That back jacket copy is, in essence, your first paragraph....

    Kids, of course, aren't the only ones who judge a book by the back cover or fly leaf. Most people do. That's why copywriters (once) had jobs in publishing. Now writers are well advised to create the sales copy themselves, if only for the overworked staff at pub cos to use as a starting point. Quite possibly the person now writing your cover copy is not a marketing person or one with copywriting experience.

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    1. Good advice, Helaine. I'm not normally one to speak up or complain about cover material. I figure the publisher knows best. But if what you say is true, that might not be the case! If I think the cover copy needs to be punched up, I should say so!

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!